The Wanamaker Trophy is officially back up for grabs. Defending champion, Collin Morikawa will need to fend off a field of 156 players in the 103rd playing of the PGA Championship in order to retain his title. Players have arrived in Kiawah Island, South Carolina, ready to take on the Pete Dye design that is the Ocean Course. For the first time in nearly a decade, the famous design will take center stage as players will look to etch their names in golf’s history book.
Stretching to nearly 7,900 yards, the Ocean Course is officially the longest course in major championship history. Combine that with coastal winds and slow, paspalum grass and this par-72 has the potential to play even longer. Yes, longer. It is likely tournament officials move teeing grounds around as the week progresses to give the players some different looks, but for our purposes we are only concerned with Round 1.
After seeing the yardage, the first instinct is to look into those players who have plenty of fire power. The Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson, and Rory McIlroy types. While distance will be needed, it won’t be the end all be all. By week’s end, I believe that accuracy will reign supreme as fairways will need to be split and greens will require precise approach shots. If wild off-the-tee, sandy areas, marsh lands, and water hazards come into play quickly. When looking into first-round leader selections, that could be the all the difference as only one loose shot could ruin a great round.
We can only gather so much information from the 2012 PGA Championship. McIlroy stormed the field and won by eight-strokes, and if not for his historic performance, it would have been a great tournament to watch down the stretch. The B-Flight was led by David Lynn of England as seven players inside the top-10 hailed from across the pond. It certainly makes sense as players like Ian Poulter and Justin Rose tend to thrive in adverse conditions.
Long commented as a “links-style” course, wind will be at the forefront of our analysis in Round 1. While I don’t believe it plays as a true links course, the wind will still be relevant. As of now, it appears relatively calm, with a steady breeze out of the East at 10-15 miles per hour. With wind from the East, both the opening stretch of holes 1 through 4 and the closing stretch of holes 14 through 18 will play back into the breeze, while the middle of the golf course, holes 5 through 13 will be down wind.
So, what does that exactly mean for our first-round predictions? Well, I believe the scores may surprise some people and players will take advantage of the conditions. All week we have heard how difficult the Ocean Course can play, but with only mild winds that may not be the case on Thursday. The eventual difference will come down to the final five holes and which player can hold on for dear life and not drop any strokes coming home.
With this in mind, we will look at a combination of birdie-making and bogey-avoidance. Ball-striking, while always at the top of our list, will be looked into as well, but scrambling will not be dismissed. Putting will be a crapshoot, so some luck may be required, but I believe our selections are more than capable of catching a hot flat stick.
The oddsmakers at PointsBet Sportsbook have priced the first-leader market ahead of the year's second major. As expected, the tournament favorites lead the way. Of note, Jordan Spieth sits at +2500, as it was only last week at the Byron Nelson that he shared the lead after 18 holes. Other notables include Masters champion, Hideki Matsuyama at +5000 and one of the hottest players on Tour, Sam Burns at +5000 as well.
Odds to Lead After the First-Round (via PointsBet):
+2000: Rory McIlroy
+3500: Viktor Hovland
To Lead After the First Round (Odds via PointsBet):
Brooks Koepka (+5000):
This is where I may lose some of you, but just bear with me as I make the case for Koepka, despite of what we’ve seen recently from the two-time PGA Championship winner. While many watched Koepka limp around TPC Craig Ranch en route to a missed cut, I saw signs of him being much closer than many think.
Over the first two days at the Byron Nelson, Koepka ranked inside the top-10 in both Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee and Strokes Gained: Around-the-Green, two statistics that will be vital this week. While the irons and putter were ice cold, Koepka deserves the benefit of the doubt of being able to turn them around given his track record, especially in this championship.
Koepka clearly has a soft spot for this tournament, specifically in the first-round. In eight PGA Championship appearances, Koepka has averaged a score of 68.63 in Round 1 alone and when narrowed down to his last five PGA Championships, that scoring average shrinks to 66.80. It’s not often you get to wager on a player like Koepka at +5000, and while it may come with some uncertainty, I believe it is well worth it.
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Cameron Smith (+5000):
The last time that we saw Smith in a stroke-play event he stormed the field Thursday evening in the midst of turbulent conditions. Oh, did I mention that round occurred on a Pete Dye design along the coast? Well, it did, and Smith has shown time and time again that he is hardly afraid of going low in Round 1.
The current leader in Round 1 scoring average on the PGA Tour, Smith averages a score of 68.54 on Thursdays. The Australian should feel right at home on the Ocean Course, playing from inland to the coastline and controlling trajectories in the winds. While it is near impossible to predict putting, Smith is one of the best on Tour, ranking T-14 in SG: Putting for the season.
Simply put, he’s never out of it. If the ball-striking isn’t cooperating, he has the short-game to back it up. He’s had trouble marrying both the driver and irons over a full-tournament, but if just one is firing on all cylinders, that should be more than enough, given the rest of his game.
Joaquin Niemann (+7000):
The young Chilean currently holds the longest made-cut streak on the PGA Tour, successfully making it to the weekend in 18 straight starts. Wildly impressive, Niemann has been able to do so thanks to his ability to start fast in Round 1, as he currently ranks 8th on the PGA Tour in first-round scoring, boasting an average of 69.33.
If the wind does indeed freshen on Thursday, I believe that only helps Niemann’s chances. There are countless videos are him hitting various, flighted shots, most famously at the Sentry Tournament of Champions. He may need to keep that shot handy as he has struggled to find fairways recently, despite what his SG: Off-the-tee numbers may indicate.
Niemann’s path to first-round success is predicated on his ball-striking. Over the past few months, there have been times when his short-game simply has not held up. Essentially, we will need Niemann to split fairways and find greens regularly, as any missed green is a potential dropped shot.
Brian Harman (+7000):
A far cry from the longest player on Tour, Harman has been able to carve out a successful career thanks to a combination of chipping and putting prowess. Many will flock to long-hitters, and rightfully so, but the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills keeps making its way into my mind. The previous holder of the longest course in major championship history, Harman held more than his own and finished runner-up to Koepka.
He’ll need to get the job done through a different medium, but it’s arguably just as effective if not more, especially when considering the skill set needed around the Ocean Course. In his last start at Quail Hollow, another big ballpark, Harman gained north of 13-strokes on and around the greens for the week. The tournament before, the former Georgia Bulldog gained more than eight-strokes in the same categories.
With his length being a concern, Harman will likely face a higher number of approach shots from 200+ yards. At first glance, his irons have been poor, especially in his last start at the Wells Fargo where he lost nearly eight-strokes on approach. Despite that, Harman was still able to finish the week fourth in proximity from 200+ yards. He’ll need to clean up his iron-play, there is no doubt about that, but it’s reassuring to know his short-game can come to the rescue if he doesn’t.
Keegan Bradley (+7000):
All signs point to Bradley this week at the Ocean Course. A T-3 in the 2012 PGA Championship, Bradley appears to be garnering plenty of attention from the general public, as indicated in the movement of his odds. It’s well warranted as Bradley hasn’t finished outside the top-30 in a tournament since February and appears to be finding some form with his putter.
Bradley has long been known as a class ball-striker who struggled on and even at some points around the greens. That is no longer a narrative as he has gained on the greens in three straight starts and around-the-green in six. His resurgence in this area of his game can be attributed to the work done on Thursdays. Bradley currently ranks 7th in Round 1 scoring and hasn’t lost total strokes to the field since the Sony Open.
Bradley opened the 2012 championship with a 4-under 68. I’m not putting a ton of stock in that performance as it was nearly a decade ago, but it’s still nice to have in the back pocket. If the putter cooperates, the 2011 PGA champion is more than capable of leading after the first-round, just like he did at the Valspar Championship a few weeks ago.
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